Cantina Creative is a Los Angeles-based design studio renowned for providing high-end creative design and visual effects solutions. Most recently, he designed, animated, and composed a wide range of captivating time-travel story point graphics for his seventeenth MCU title, “Loki.”
Cantina Creative created 172 shots in 33 sequences across six episodes of “Loki.” The Cantina team operated from familiar ground, having previously worked with Marvel Studios VFX supervisors Dan DeLeeuw and David Allen and VFX producer Allison Paul on “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers : Endgame” by Marvel. Cantina also provided story-based VFX footage for “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier”.
Cantina was originally contracted to design and animate numerous screens that would play a key visual role in TVA’s time travel story over a number of episodes for “Loki”. The studio also created content that appears on the many monitors and chronomonitors located throughout the TVA Command Center that visually display the actual timeline, and designs for a series of elaborate holographic projections showing variations of Loki to illustrate different time periods of the character’s story.
Here, we asked Stephen Lawes, co-founder/creative director of Cantina Creative, five questions about the installation and his work, including the work done on “Loki.”
Q. What was the motivation for starting a VFX studio 11 years ago? How have changes in CG technology over time impacted the type of projects Cantina is now able to handle?
SL: Our motivation was to create our content. In the beginning, we partnered with Bandito Brothers since they were already doing it. We knew our bread and butter was going to be motion graphics for film, and we gradually got pretty good at it. But ultimately, we want to get to a point where we produce our own projects. The ever-changing technology landscape presents a struggle and an opportunity. It’s often hard to keep up with what’s new and emerging, but we’re often looking for ways to use technology in unexpected ways that could produce a fresh and interesting visual. It’s also easy to get stuck in a technology dead end or loop. So we try to stay tool-agnostic and approach a project or task with the creation and the story in mind, and then select the tool that feels effective and appropriate.
Q. Cantina has earned a strong reputation contributing HUD and screen graphics to iconic Marvel Cinematic Universe films and original series including “WandaVision”, “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier”, and “Loki”. How did this relationship start and how has it evolved over time?
SL. At Cantina, we started on the first “Avengers” movie, but Sean Cushing, co-owner and executive producer of Cantina, had worked on “Iron Man 1” and we had designed and run the HUDs on “Iron Man 2” at the PLF. So, it’s been a long process working with Marvel since day one, and like any long relationship, you have good days and bad days. It was difficult at first as we were all finding our bearings, but eventually it became incredibly rewarding. I think the content Marvel is producing now has matured and the quality just keeps getting better. The same goes for the quality of work produced by Cantina. We are still waiting for the next project to improve to some extent.
Q. The studio’s recent work on “Loki,” in particular, focuses on time travel to the past and future. When did you and the team work with Marvel to prepare the look of the juxtaposition of so many varied VFX time elements – many with limited real-world references? What kind of direction are you provided?
SL. Initially, we came in November 2020 to start look development. The priority was to manage the design and execution of the “Sacred Timeline”. We were given postvis and concept art that was produced, and we started developing the look. Our main focus was the story as it appeared in many different forms throughout the episodes and how it communicated the notion of variants branching out from the timeline. In addition to the fantastic production design, we produced something that was consistent with the story and felt right at home in the Time Variance Authority (TVA). It was the same strategy we used whether we were dealing with the Matrix on the TVA Command Center monitors, an animated robot face, the Roxxcart super store monitor graphics, or a time shovel.
Q. What were some of the challenges in helping convey the crucial and climactic “He Who Remains” sequence to Loki that reveals the backstory of TVA? What main software tools were used to achieve it?
SL. We had to make sure that each of these sculpts read like The One Who Remains, and you knew who that was from a character perspective. Because these were mini thumbnails and depicting a scene, you want it to be as clear as possible. Then we backtracked and got into the science of what is this material? How did it happen? How is it based on the character? Does it say anything about the character? When Dan DeLeeuw, the visual effects supervisor, described the scene, it reminded me of some of the early creative design work we did for Captain Marvel. Some of them did not make it into the film due to editorial changes. I think we called it tech dough when we were working on “Captain Marvel.” And it was just this ever-changing liquid/light matter, which was specifically for the Skrulls at the time. They used it as a control device, based on proximity, where they could check back into someone’s mind, determine their story.
I sent Dan a whole bunch of this work, and he seemed pretty excited about the technology and how it could be used. This, in turn, was shown to the director, and we took care of understanding the physical qualities of matter and how it works. We wondered, how does this relate to Who Remains from a physical perspective? Because it controls time, should each of these moments start life as light, then the light changes more to liquid, then to solid, and we show the different shape changes as we do on these small thumbnail statues? We did a whole bunch of testing in that department, and then it evolved over time to echo its environment, which was a lot more of that marble-built environment, with that vein of gold running through it. And that’s how it ended up being, which echoes the design of the production or the setting it was in. We mainly used Houdini from start to finish on transitions and used After Effects for look development and finish compositing.
Q. What evolving technology trends are you most excited about? Any plans to adopt them into Cantina offerings?
SL: Turning in an LED volume using Unreal is super exciting. We have a couple of our own projects that we’re trying to get off the ground, and that kind of technique would be ideal. Frankly, anything to do with Unreal sounds exciting. We’re currently on a Disney project (which I can’t mention) where we’re delivering Unreal assets for real-time playback. Unreal 5 looks amazing, especially with the introduction of Lumen and Nanite.